A mere day’s drive up the road from the Flinders Ranges is the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, seemingly a law unto itself even to this day.
Most people live underground in “dugouts". The freezing winters and scorching desert summers are enough to drive anyone out of town or underground into the miles of empty shafts below the main street. A standard three-bedroom cave home with lounge, kitchen, and bathroom can be excavated out of the rock in the hillside for a similar price to building a house on the surface. The difference is that dugouts remain at a constant temperature, while surface buildings need air conditioning and heating.
All this underground living however, means that the streetscape feels like a post-apocalyptic desert set for Mad Max. Steampunk bedecked locals and supercharged V8 Interceptors wouldn’t seem out of place here. Just to cement that feel, that when the wind picks up, you’d best have a pair of sunnies, or better yet goggles, close at hand to keep the windblown grit out of your eyes.
Despite the post-apocalyptic feel, Coober Pedy has charm and the desert in general is one of our favourite places.
Up the road, the slightly eerie town of Woomera has a small but cool retro museum that covers Australia’s rocket development history from the Cold War era, as well as the history of nearby testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950’s. It fascinated us but the kids went looking for their iPads with some very “So what’s the big deal about all this old junk?!?” glares.
Once the heartland of Australian rocketry, it’s still a test range but feels a bit sleeper than it must have been during the heady cold war days. Like sunken oil rigs which form an ecosystem for aquatic life, old rockets seem to make good friends for feathered creatures.
First sight of Uluru (Ayers Rock) was every bit as impressive as expected, looming high on the distant horizon like a bigger, more majestic cousin to the 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolith . We headed towards it at 130 kms per hour with great excitement and anticipation, only to discover that even after about 20 minutes of driving, we still didn’t seem to be much closer. It was huge. When we finally reached the base, it was staggeringly apparent that it was more like a mountain range than a ‘rock'.
Notwithstanding the sheer scale of Uluru, it was just great to be back under the clear blue skies of the central Australian desert again. Somehow the sky seems higher and clearer in the desert both by day and by night. In any case, the desert certainly feels like home to us.
As stunning as Uluru is, we all found Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) much more personal, less crowded by summit-seeking tourists, and generally far more interesting.
The camping area at Yulara is more of a town than a campground. Not that long ago, you could simply drive up and camp at the base of The Rock. It’s probably good that you can’t anymore as we’ve been constantly astonished by the sheer number of people who are on the road doing what we are doing, albeit usually with a 3 tonne caravan in tow. Virtually every rest area beside the road has at least a dozen caravans each night and there were 1,500 people camping at Yulara for the two nights we were there. It is still impressive, but in 2015 is a relatively organised and sanitised version of the bush.
Driving back to the campground after watching the sunset onto Uluru was spectacularly beautiful, but the traffic left us eager to find the more remote bush areas in WA.
We had planned to visit Ormiston Gorge in the West McDonnell Ranges to take the kids on the beautiful Ormiston Pound walk. We had hiked the Pound walk last year, as a side trip to the 19 days spent hiking the 230 km length of the Larapinta Trail. Larapinta is by far our favourite hike to date, but that story is for another blog. In any case, the desert though warm by day, will freeze your water bottle overnight and we were well-and-truly over the cold after not long leaving the Canberran winter. Waking to one too many cold, windy desert mornings inspired us to bypass Ormiston and head directly to Alice Springs for a couple of nights in a serviced apartment to defrost ourselves, enjoy some cafe food and relax. Alice is a surprisingly multicultural town, rich with artistic, creative energy and we could see ourselves living there one day.
We headed next to Tennant Creek where an 18 year old Julian used to work in an underground gold mine, as a construction worker, a firefighter, baggage handler and a dozen other jobs. In 1980 Tennant Creek was, it seemed, very short of workers; and Julian was very short of cash. The place has added some new buildings but as highway towns go, is still more ‘interesting’ than charming. To be fair, it is still more interesting and notable than the town of Elliot.
Did you notice our brief interaction with one of the Elliot locals at 00:11?
Also, did we mention that the trucks are big up here?
With three or four trailers, these 200 tonne behemoths have truly made the camel trains of old completely obsolete. They often run two layers high with cattle and trust us, you don’t want to get caught behind when those cattle need to relieve themselves.
Another wonderful feature of the Northern Territory is that on most of the Stuart Highway, ("the track”) the maximum speed limit is 130 km/h and in many places, there is simply no speed limit. It is up to you to use common sense, drive within your limits and to the conditions. The roads are great with terrific surfaces and visibility, but don’t forget the stray cattle as most of the million acre properties have no fences so it’s a bit of a 'driver beware’ situation, something we were increasingly mindful of with every desiccated carcass that we passed.
Another memorable feature of the Stuart Highway are the roadside stops in the middle of nowhere. Little more than pubs which sell petrol, they are for the most part full of character and full of characters, both human and otherwise. You have to wonder whether they make more profit from the bar or the bowser.
Either way, with only one passing vehicle every 20 minutes, it's not a volume business but is pretty safe for the odd emu crossing.